Thomas Jefferson: A paradox and a paragon

Thomas Jefferson: A paradox and a paragon

Richmond : VA : USA | Mar 27, 2012 at 2:36 PM PDT
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Tocqueville Lecture Series - Mark Bauerlein

Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States and among the best. The determination of who was the best president, however, deserves an assessment not only in their era, but also what evidence do we have today of the longevity of their actions to continue to shape the government, define our national identity, and contribute to what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the American Experiment” in democracy. In his 1835 study of the American political system published in the book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville explores American politics and culture.

In it he describes Thomas Jefferson as the most powerful advocate democracy has ever had, even though Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers considered America a Republic rather than a democracy, which meant individuals and regions, i.e. the states, should govern themselves without the interference of the federal government. In contrast Washingtonian/Hamiltonian Federalists advanced a strong central government, thus, creating an ideological divide during the developing stages of the nation into the competing philosophies of regionalism and nationalism.

Historian Robert Tucker paints Jefferson as a paradox because as a member of the Democratic Republicans and a Virginia agriculturalist, he sided with agrarian farmers emphasizing the dedication to states' rights and self-determination, although, he travelled in Europe and spent four years in France as American Minister and considered himself to be cosmopolitan and a Francophile.

He owned 200 slaves, but he opposed slavery as an institution calling it an “abominable crime.” He drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans, and in 1784 he proposed an ordinance banning slavery in the new territories of the Northwest.

In one of the most controversial presidential executive decisions of his time, as president he expanded the U.S. by one third through the acquisition of the Louisiana Territories owned by France in what is known as the Louisiana Purchase, making him one of the first presidents to go beyond the constraints imposed by the Constitution. The expansion was not only in territories, but also broadened the powers of the federal executive branch of government to include land acquisition without congressional approval in a compelling reach of executive power and to the dismay of fellow Democratic Republicans. Still, the land purchase is considered one of the defining moments in American history.

Shaped our government then and now

Jefferson was a paragon of linguistic eloquence and authored the Declaration of Independence. It has been invoked throughout our history to declare and confirm our freedoms since 1776. Even though individual rights were not created by its issuance and certainly this was obvious to Native Americans; women; and African Americans, the guiding principles of the Declaration of Independence have expanded and sustained individual and civil rights since its inception through amendments to the Constitution, Congressional legislation, and landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It has stood the test of time to be the one document that promises and ensures Americans life, liberty, and equality—with generations of interpretations, and the pursuit of happiness as our inalienable rights. It defines the core values upon which our cultural and political truths depend now and in the future.

National Identity

Before President Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery (1804-06) to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase lands and those West across the continent, regionalism was preferred over an American national identity. People associated themselves with their state or region, not the United States. Jefferson favored expansion for the purpose of commerce, declaring U.S. sovereignty over Native Americans along the Missouri River, and obtaining a sense of the resources in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and lands to the West. In doing this he laid the foundation for populating America.

Newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in 1845 to describe the spirit of nationalism that swept the country. But it was President Thomas Jefferson who initially opened up the continental United States not only to exploration but eventually the westward movement that ultimately populated the contiguous states creating a nation of United States from coast to coast and a national identity.

Democracy in America

In true Jeffersonian spirit, the core goal of democracy today is citizen involvement in their communities as “Stewards of Place,” according to The Democracy Commitment Project. Democracy ideally creates equality of opportunity in most aspects of life. Capitalism, on the other hand, authorizes its followers to seize profits from the world without acknowledgement necessarily that it is a citizen of a larger democracy where collective responsibility should be the standard for community, state and federal governance—therein lies the conflict but also the political catalyst for change and growth.

A democratic political system functions to balance and correct public policy when it strays from representing the best interests of the majority. Jefferson’s “stewards of place” were the balancing force opposing the Federalists and set into action two distinct political ideologies, which would later be the basis for our two party political system which is the bedrock of American democracy and is as viable today as was in the 19th century. The evidence is clearly represented by conservatives who tend to be regionalists and liberals who favor strong federal oversight and protectorship.


Whether Thomas Jefferson is viewed as a paradox or a paragon, his political legacy is all around us. It’s in the U.S. Supreme Court deciding on the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality based on the commerce clause and even in the use of presidential executive powers. His participation in framing how we are governed is unmistakable. Jefferson was a Renaissance man and the “American son of The Enlightenment,” for he was an accomplished lawyer, agronomist, musician, scientist, philosopher, author, architect, inventor and statesman. He has been called the Father of Democracy in America, and this cannot be credited without acknowledging the tenets of The Enlightenment that influenced his writings and political philosophy that have endured and continue to mold and define Americans fostering the belief in natural law, universal order, and confidence in human reason.

The Declaration of Independence echoes the 18th-century Enlightenment precepts of the social contract described by Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke that established the connection between individuals and their government. Those relationships and notions are still referred to by modern philosophers like John Rawls whose principle of distributive justice affirms the democratic ideal that a society and its institutions function in favor of those who are the least advantaged.

Alexis de Tocqueville called American democracy an “experiment” 250 years ago, and there are still questions left to be answered. Can American democracy naturally fortify itself overtime, or do its benefits work to undermine its strengths? One of the best fortifications against political and social totalitarianism is peace. Democracies do not declare war on each other, so imagine a world where only democracies exist. As political philosophers ponder these questions in the future, they will be referring back to Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, Locke, and the American Thomas Jefferson.



If you like writing about U.S. politics and the 2012 campaign, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.

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Thomas Jefferson
Engraving of Thomas Jefferson c. 1876, Library of Congress.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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